House and Garden – November, 2001


I heard this rejoinder repeatedly during the preparation of this story: Perhaps the reason for it is that Pitt’s on-screen roles-a sexy drifter in Thelma and Louise, a frighteningly cool masochist in Fight Club-don’t immediately square with an abiding love for plants and trees. But offscreen, Pitt is as serious about designing gardens and houses as he is about his career. If he weren’t an actor he says, he might have become a landscape architect.

Behind an unassuming little gate in the Hollywood Hills, Pitt has created a compound of gardens and buildings where he lives with his wife, actress Jennifer Aniston. He came here in 1994, when he fell in love with a 1911 Arts and Crafts house sitting on a pinched site. He has been buying up adjacent houses, which he renovates for guests or demolishes to open views or make way for new buildings.

He has tied together his unusual property, physically and stylistically, through the garden. The rough seams of his patchwork estate are finessed with paths, large trees, and hedges that move the eye and block unwanted views. But mostly it is the boldly elegant garden landscape-a modern East-meets-West fusion-that is at once coherent enough to unify and eclectic enough to absorb all the different periods and styles of buildings here.

The vision of Pitt’s gardening mentor and collaborator, Jay Griffith, has made this possible. Griffith, a talented, highly sought-after landscape designer, and Pitt have an unusually tempestuous and devoted designer-client relationship. They discuss everything at length, often with great emotion. Although Pitt is not out digging in the dirt, he is involved in every aspect of the garden’s design, from its style to the placement of each tree. Both men view the garden as a product of their intense collaboration.

Driving along the freeway, tailed by paparazzi, Pitt recalls the day, years ago, when he met Griffith. Pitt, house-hunting, was shown Griffith’s Santa Monica home. It wasn’t right for him, but Pitt was "blown away by garden." Griffith came back to find Pitt spread across his couch. "Jay was rude, cantankerous," Pitt says. "I was really taken with him. He was an artist protective of himself and his work." A few years later, when Pitt found his house, he tracked down Griffith. "We’ve been lovers ever since," he jokes.

Pitt credits Griffith with educating him in the ways of nature-"in the way seeds fall and nature propagates itself." Griffith says he is awed by Pitt’s "razor sharp" intelligence, discerning eye, and willingness to try anything. Frequent quarrelling, which Pitt calls "collaborative confrontations," enhances the symbiosis. According to Pitt, they design the garden thusly: he tells Griffith about an idea; Griffith tells him it can’t be done; they argue; eventually, Griffith lights on a solution that far exceeds what Pitt had hoped for at the outset.

Pitt originally wanted a Japanese garden. This made some sense, since Japanese landscape and architecture influenced the Craftsman style of his house. Griffith was worried about being "too literal," and guided Pitt toward a landscape that is Asian in feeling but that uses California natives and drought-resistant Mediterranean plants. While the garden is undeniably theatrical, its extravagance is married to simplicity. There is great resistant in the palette, which is almost entirely shades of green, and in the planting, which includes very few flowers and is applied in broad, single-variety brushstrokes.

Griffith is masterful at contrasting the muscular form of a huge yucca or heavy slabs of stone with soft, shaggy grasses or shimmering sheets of water. The result is a garden that is aggressively masculine yet quietly Zen-like. Perhaps this seeming paradox stems from the way garden draws on nature itself. Griffith’s landscape is conspicuously designed, but filled out in great naturalistic sweeps, like swaths of fern or a grove of bamboo. For his part, Pitt is awed to live surrounded by what he sweetly describes as "a gallery of God’s best work."